Brain organoid model shows molecular signs of Alzheimer’s before birth

In a model of human fetal brain development, Emory researchers can see perturbations of epigenetic markers in cells derived from people with familial early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which takes decades to appear. This suggests that in people who inherit mutations linked to early-onset Alzheimer’s, it would be possible to detect molecular changes in their brains before birth. The results were published in the journal Cell Reports. “The beauty of using organoids is that they allow us to Read more

The earliest spot for Alzheimer's blues

How the most common genetic risk factor in AD interacts with the earliest site of neurodegeneration Read more

Make ‘em fight: redirecting neutrophils in CF

Why do people with cystic fibrosis (CF) have such trouble with lung infections? The conventional view is that people with CF are at greater risk for lung infections because thick, sticky mucus builds up in their lungs, allowing bacteria to thrive. CF is caused by a mutation that affects the composition of the mucus. Rabindra Tirouvanziam, an immunologist at Emory, says a better question is: what type of cell is supposed to be fighting the Read more

Neuro

The earliest spot for Alzheimer’s blues

The Emory laboratories of Keqiang Ye and David Weinshenker recently published a paper on ApoE, the most common genetic risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer’s. The findings, published in Acta Neuropathologica, suggest how the risk-conferring form of ApoE (ApoE4) may exacerbate pathology in the locus coeruleus.

The LC, part of the brainstem, is thought to be the first region of the brain where pathological signs predicting future cellular degeneration show up. The LC (“blue spot”) gets its name from its blue color; it regulates attention, arousal, stress responses and cognition. The LC is also the major site for production of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.

ApoE, which packages and transports cholesterol, was known to modulate the buildup of the toxic protein fragment beta-amyloid, but this proposed mechanism goes through Tau. Tau is the other pesky protein in Alzheimer’s, forming neurofibrillary tangles that are the earliest signs of degeneration in the brain. Tau pathology correlates better with dementia and cognitive impairments than beta-amyloid, which several proposed Alzheimer’s therapeutics act on.

The new paper shows that ApoE4 inhibits the enzyme VMAT2, which packages norepinephrine into vesicles. As a result, free/unpackaged norepinephrine lingers in the cytoplasm, and forms a harmful oxidative byproduct that triggers enzymatic degradation of Tau. Thus, norepinephrine may have a “too hot to handle” role in Alzheimer’s – with respect to the LC — somewhat analogous to dopamine in Parkinson’s, which has also been observed to form harmful byproducts. Dopamine and norepinephrine are similar chemically and both are substrates of VMAT2, so this relationship is not a stretch.

Model of how norepinephrine byproduct DOPEGAL triggers locus coeruleus degeneration through Tau

The Emory results make the case for inhibiting the enzyme AEP (asparagine endopeptidase), also known as delta-secretase, as an approach for heading off Alzheimer’s. AEP is the Tau-munching troublemaker, and is activated by the norepinephrine byproduct DOPEGAL

An alternative approach may be to inhibit monoamine oxidase (MAO-A above) enzymes — several old-school antidepressants are available that accomplish this.

At Emory, Ye’s lab has been tracing connections for AEP/delta-secretase in the last few years, and Weinshenker’s group is expert on all things norepinephrine, so the collaboration makes sense.

Delta-secretase’s name positions it in relation to beta- and gamma-secretase, enzymes for processing APP (amyloid precursor protein) into beta-amyloid, but AEP/delta-secretase has the distinction of having its fingers in both the beta-amyloid and Tau pies.

We have to caution that most of the recent research on delta-secretase has been in mouse models. Ye’s collaborators in China have been testing an inhibitor of delta-secretase in animals but it has not reached human studies yet, he reports. That said, this work has been oriented toward figuring out the web of interactions between known players such as ApoE and Tau, whose importance has been well-established in studies of humans with Alzheimer’s.

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Trailblazer award for MR monitoring brain temperature

In the emergency department, the temperature of the brain is critical information after someone has a stroke or cardiac arrest, and even more important during treatment. Yet it is difficult for doctors to accurately or directly measure brain temperature.

Magnetic resonance imaging technology being developed at Emory University School of Medicine could provide more accurate measurements. A team of researchers has received a three-year, $400,000 grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) to monitor brain temperature while patients are undergoing therapeutic hypothermia after cardiac arrest. Therapeutic hypothermia, or controlled cooling, is a treatment used to protect the brain after loss of blood flow. While cooling is used in many hospitals, it is not widely implemented nor has it been optimized in terms of dosage or timing.

Candace Fleischer, in front of a MRI scanner

The project is led by Candace Fleischer, PhD, an assistant professor of radiology and imaging sciences at Emory. The grant is part of NIBIB’s Trailblazer program, which is designed for early stage investigators to pursue research in new directions.

“Our goals are to develop a new method for non-invasive brain temperature monitoring, and to demonstrate the ability to measure brain-body temperature differences in cardiac arrest patients during therapeutic cooling,” says Fleischer, who is also a member of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory.

“Currently, therapeutic hypothermia is monitored using core body temperature due to a lack of non-invasive tools,” she adds. “Yet, we know brain temperature tends to be higher than body temperature, and brain and body temperatures are decoupled after injury. Accurate measurements of brain temperature are needed to optimize clinical implementation.”

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Steer microglia toward the angels – with a drug based on sea anemone venom

Researchers interested in Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases are focusing their attention on microglia, cells that are part of the immune system in the brain.

Author Donna Jackson Nakazawa titled her recent book on microglia “The Angel and the Assassin,” based on the cells’ dual nature; they can be benign or malevolent, either supporting neuronal health or driving harmful inflammation. Microglia resemble macrophages in their dual nature, but microglia are renewed within the brain, unlike macrophages, which are white blood cells that infiltrate into the brain from outside.

At Emory, neurologist Srikant Rangaraju’s lab recently published a paper in PNAS on a promising drug target on microglia: Kv1.3 potassium channels. Overall, the results strengthen the case for targeting Kv1.3 potassium channels as a therapeutic approach for Alzheimer’s.

Kv1.3 potassium channels have also been investigated as potential therapeutic targets in autoimmune disorders, since they are expressed on T cells as well as microglia. The peptide dalazatide, based on a toxin from the venom of the Caribbean sea anemone Stichodactyla helianthus, is being developed by the Ohio-based startup TEKv Therapeutics. The original venom peptide needed to be modified to make it more selective toward the right potassium channels  – more about that here.

Kv1.3 potassium channels are potential therapeutic targets in autoimmune disorders and Alzheimer’s — blockable with peptides based on venom of the sea anemone Stichodactyla helianthus

It appears that Kv1.3 levels on microglia increase in response to exposure to amyloid-beta, the toxic protein fragment that accumulates in the brain in Alzheimer’s, and Kv1.3 may be an indicator that microglia are turning to the malevolent side.

In the Emory paper, researchers showed that Kv1.3 potassium channels are present on a subset of microglia isolated from Alzheimer’s patients’ brains. They also used bone marrow transplant experiments to show that the immune cells in mouse brain that express Kv1.3 channels are microglia (internal brain origin), not macrophages (transplantable w/ bone marrow).

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Emory researchers SNARE new Alzheimer’s targets

Diving deep into Alzheimer’s data sets, a recent Emory Brain Health Center paper in Nature Genetics spots several new potential therapeutic targets, only one of which had been previous linked to Alzheimer’s. The Emory analysis was highlighted by the Alzheimer’s site Alzforum, gathering several positive comments from other researchers.

Thomas Wingo, MD

Lead author Thomas Wingo and his team — wife Aliza Wingo is first author – identified the targets by taking a new approach: tracing connections between proteins that are altered in abundance in patients’ brains and risk genes identified through genome-wide association studies.

The list of 11 genes/proteins named as “consistent with being causal” may be contributing to AD pathogenesis through various mechanisms: vesicular trafficking, inflammation, lipid metabolism and hypertension. We asked Wingo which ones he wanted to highlight, and he provided this comment:

“The most interesting genes, to me, are the ones involved in the SNARE complex (in the paper, STX4 and STX6) and the others involved in vesicular trafficking. There is already a deep body of literature that describe a role for some of these components in AD, and I’m hopeful providing specific targets might be useful to those studies.”

A simplistic way to look at the mechanism of Alzheimer’s disease is: proteins build up in the brain, in the form of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. The functions of neurons and other brain cells are thought to be impaired by bits of beta-amyloid floating around.

Inside neurons, the SNARE complex is the core of the machinery that pushes vesicles to fuse with the cell membrane. Neurons communicate with each other by having vesicles inside the cell – bags full of neurotransmitters – release their contents. They’re like tiny packets of pepper or other spices that make the neuron next door sneeze. In Alzheimer’s, amyloid oligomers have been reported to block SNARE complex assembly, which may explain aspects of impaired cognition.

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Memory screening using eye-tracking on mobile devices

Investigators at Emory Brain Health Center have developed a platform for evaluating visual memory, while someone views photos for a few minutes on an iPad.

Emory researchers, led by Goizuieta Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center director Allan Levey and biomedical informatics chair Gari Clifford, are working with the company Linus Health to develop the VisMET (Visuospatial Memory Eye-Tracking Test) technology further. Results from the most recent version were published in the journal IEEE Transaction on Biomedical Engineering, and the Emory/Linus team continues to refine the technology.

The goal is to screen people for memory issues, identifying those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or Alzheimer’s disease. The task — difficult to call it a test — was designed to be more efficient, easier to administer, and more enjoyable than tests currently used.

“We think this could be a sensitive and specific method for detecting visual memory impairment, and it’s convenient enough for use on a wider scale,” Levey says.

The VisMET technology is based on this observation. When someone with MCI or Alzheimer’s views a photo twice, and the photo has been changed the second time (example: an object in the scene has been removed), their eyes spend less time checking the new or missing element in the photo, compared with healthy people. This is because the regions of the brain that drive visual memory formation, such as the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus, are some of the earliest to deteriorate in MCI or Alzheimer’s.

Currently, when someone is evaluated for memory loss, they get a battery of “paper and pencil” tests to assess verbal memory. Researchers say the alternative of viewing photos on a tablet could be less intimidating for those taking the test, as well as easier to administer and score. The only instruction given to study participants was to enjoy the images.

“The current way memory tests are implemented can be stressful,” says software engineer Alvince Pongos, who is co-first author of the IEEE TBME paper, now at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “The difficulty of standard memory tests can lead to test-givers repeating task instructions many times, and to test-takers being confused and frustrated. If we design simpler tasks and make our tools available in the comfort of one’s home, then we remove barriers allowing more people to engage with their health information.”

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Oxytocin delivery via nanoparticles

The neuropeptide oxytocin, known for promoting social interactions, has attracted interest as a possible treatment for autism spectrum disorder. A challenge is getting the molecule past the blood-brain barrier. Many clinical studies have used delivery via nasal spray, but even then, oxytocin doesn’t last long in the body and shows inconsistent effects.

Emory neuroscientist Andrew Escayg has been collaborating with Mercer/LSU pharmacologist Kevin Murnane on a nanoparticle delivery approach that could get around these obstacles. One of Escayg’s primary interests is epilepsy — specifically Dravet syndrome, a severe genetic form of epilepsy — and oxytocin has previously displayed anti-seizure properties in animal models.

Escayg and Murnane’s recent paper in Neurobiology of Disease shows that when oxytocin is packaged into nanoparticles, it can increase resistance to induced seizures and promote social behavior in a mouse model of Dravet syndrome.

This suggests properly delivered oxytocin could have benefits on both seizures and behavior. In addition to seizures, children and adults with Dravet syndrome often have autism – see this Spectrum News article on the connections.

Escayg reports he is planning a collaboration with oxytocin expert Larry Young at Yerkes, who Tweeted “This is a promising new area of oxytocin research” when the paper was published. Senior postdoc Jennifer Wong has already been working on extending the findings to other mouse models of epilepsy and adding data on spontaneous seizure frequency.

The nanoparticle approach could be used for other neuropeptides such as neuropeptide Y, proposed as a treatment mode for anxiety disorders/PTSD, and hypocretin, the missing molecule in narcolepsy. Murnane formed a company when he was at Mercer to develop the technology.

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Two birds with one stone: amygdala ablation for PTSD and epilepsy

The amygdala is a region of the brain known for its connections to emotional responses and fear memories, and hyperreactivity of the amygdala is associated with symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). That said, it’s quite a leap to design neurosurgical ablation of the amygdala to address someone’s PTSD. This type of irreversible intervention could only be considered because of the presence of another brain disorder: epilepsy.

In a case series published in Neurosurgery, Emory investigators describe how for their first patient with both refractory epilepsy and PTSD, observations of PTSD symptom reduction were fortuitous. However, in a second patient, before-and-after studies could be planned. In both, neurosurgical ablation of the amygdala significantly reduced PTSD symptoms as well as reducing seizure frequency.

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Unusual partnership may drive neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s

Emory researchers have gained insights into how toxic Tau proteins kill brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. Tau is the main ingredient of neurofibrillary tangles, one of two major hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.

Pathological forms of Tau appear to soak up and sequester a regulatory protein called LSD1, preventing it from performing its functions in the cell nucleus. In mice that overproduce a disease-causing form of Tau, giving them extra LSD1 slows down the process of brain cell death.

The results were published on November 2 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Blocking the interaction between pathological Tau and LSD1 could be a potential therapeutic strategy for Alzheimer’s and other diseases, says senior author David Katz, PhD, associate professor of cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine.

“Our data suggest that inhibition of LSD1 may be the critical mediator of neurodegeneration caused by pathological Tau,” Katz says. “Our intervention was sufficient to preserve cells at a late stage, when pathological Tau had already started to form.”

While the Katz lab’s research was performed in mice, they have indications that their work is applicable to human disease. They’ve already observed that LSD1 abnormally accumulates in neurofibrillary tangles in brain tissue samples from Alzheimer’s patients.

First author Amanda
Engstrom, PhD

Mutations in the gene encoding Tau also cause other neurodegenerative diseases such as frontotemporal dementia and progressive supranuclear palsy. In these diseases, the Tau protein accumulates in the cytoplasm in an aggregated form, which is enzymatically modified in abnormal ways. The aggregates are even thought to travel from cell to cell.

Tau is normally present in the axons of neurons, while LSD1 goes to the nucleus. LSD1’s normal function is as an “epigenetic enforcer”, repressing genes that are supposed to stay off.

“Usually LSD1 and Tau proteins would pass each other, like ships in the night,” Katz says. “Tau only ends up in the cytoplasm of neurons when it is in its pathological form, and in that case the ships seem to collide.”

Former graduate student Amanda Engstrom PhD, the first author of the paper, made a short video that explains how she and her colleagues think LSD1 and Tau are coming into contact.

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The sweet side of Alzheimer’s proteomics

The Alzheimer’s field has been in a “back to the basics” mode lately. Much research has focused on beta-amyloid, the toxic protein fragment that accumulates in plaques in the brain. Yet drugs that target beta-amyloid have mostly been disappointing in clinical trials.

To broaden scope and gain new insights into the biology of Alzheimer’s, Emory investigators have been making large-scale efforts to catalog alterations of brain proteins. One recent example: Nick Seyfried and Erik Johnson’s enormous collection of proteomics data, published this spring in Nature Medicine. Another can be seen in the systematic mapping of N-glycosylation, just published in Science Advances by pharmacologist Lian Li and colleagues.

“It is very exciting to see, for the first time, the landscape of protein N-glycosylation changes in Alzheimer’s brain,” Li says. “Our results suggest that the N-glycosylation changes may contribute to brain malfunction in Alzheimer’s patients.  We believe that targeting N-glycosylation may provide a new opportunity to help combat this devastating dementia.”

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Fragile X: $8 million NIH grant supports next-generation neuroscience

Supported by a $8 million, five-year grant, an Emory-led team of scientists plans to investigate new therapeutic approaches to fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism.

Fragile X research represents a doorway to a better understanding of autism, and learning and memory. The field has made strides in recent years. Researchers have a good understanding of the functions of the FMR1 gene, which is silenced in fragile X syndrome.

Still, clinical trials based on that understanding have been unsuccessful, highlighting limitations of current mouse models. Researchers say the answer is to use “organoid” cultures that mimic the developing human brain.

The new grant continues support for the Emory Fragile X Center, first funded by the National Institutes of Health in 1997. The Center’s research program includes scientists from Emory as well as Stanford, New York University, Penn and the University of Southern California. The Emory Center will be one of three funded by the National Institutes of Health; the others are at Baylor College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

The co-directors for the Emory Fragile X Center are Peng Jin, PhD, chair of human genetics, and Stephen Warren, PhD, William Patterson Timmie professor and chair emeritus of human genetics. In the 1980s and 1990s, Warren led an international team that discovered the FMR1 gene and the mechanism of trinucleotide repeat expansion that silences the gene. This explained fragile X syndrome’s distinctive inheritance pattern, first identified by Emory geneticist Stephanie Sherman, PhD.

“Fragile X research is a consistent strength for Emory, stretching across several departments, based on groundbreaking work from Steve and Stephanie,” Jin says. “Now we have an opportunity to apply the knowledge we and our colleagues have gained to test the next generation of treatments.”

Fragile X researchers from three Emory departments, following COVID-19 spacing guidelines in the laboratory. From left to right: Peng Jin, Gary Bassell, Zhexing Wen and Nisha Raj.

Looking ahead, a key element of the Center’s research will involve studying the human brain in “disease in a dish” models, says Gary Bassell, PhD, chair of cell biology. Nisha Raj, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Bassell’s lab, has been studying how FMR1 regulates localized protein synthesis at the brain’s synapses.

“What we’re learning is that there may be different RNA targets in human and mouse cells,” he says. “There’s a clear need to regroup and incorporate human cells into the research.”

Microscope images of fragile X human brain organoids, courtesy of Zhexing Wen. Green represents cytoplasmic Nestin while red represents nuclear Sox2; both are markers for neural progenitor cells.
Microscope image of fragile X human brain organoids, courtesy of Zhexing Wen. Green represents cytoplasmic Nestin while red represents nuclear Sox2; both are markers for neural progenitor cells. 

Center investigator Zhexing Wen, PhD, has developed techniques for culturing brain organoids (image above), which reproduce features of human brain development in miniature. Wen, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, cell biology and neurology at Emory, has used organoids to model other disorders, such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

The organoids are formed from human brain cells, coming from induced pluripotent stem cells, which are in turn derived from patient-donated tissues. Emory’s Laboratory of Translational Cell Biology, directed by Bassell, has developed several lines of induced pluripotent stem cells from fragile X syndrome patients.

“All of the investigators are sharing these valuable resources and collaborating on multiple projects,” Bassell says.

Principal investigators in the Emory Fragile X Center are Jin, Warren, Bassell, and Wen, along with Eric Klann, PhD at New York University, Lu Chen, PhD, and 2013 Nobel Prize winner Thomas Südhof, MD. Chen and Südhof are neuroscientists at Stanford.

Co-investigators include biostatistician Hao Wu, PhD and geneticist Emily Allen, PhD at Emory, neuroscientist Guo-li Ming, MD, PhD, at University of Pennsylvania, and biomedical engineer Dong Song, PhD, at University of Southern California.
 
Allen, Warren and Jin are part of an additional grant to Baylor, Emory and University of Michigan investigators, who are focusing on FXTAS (fragile X-associated tremor-ataxia syndrome) and FXPOI (fragile X-associated primary ovarian insufficiency). These are conditions that affect people with fragile X premutations.

Fragile X syndrome is caused by a genetic duplication on the X chromosome, a “triplet repeat” in which a portion of the gene (CGG) gets repeated again and again. Fragile X syndrome affects about one child in 5,000, and is more common and more severe in boys. It often causes mild to moderate intellectual disabilities as well as behavioral and learning challenges. About a third of children affected have characteristics of autism, such as problems with eye contact, social anxiety, and delayed speech. 
 
The award for the Emory Fragile X Center is administered by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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